St. Clair, Mich. — In the coming months, St. Clair County pediatricians will start to prescribe more than eardrops, cough syrup or antibiotics to local kids. They will be giving prescriptions for nature — recommending outdoor activity in their community — to young patients. The effort supports research showing the physical and mental health benefits that are linked to unstructured, outdoor activities and time spent in a natural setting like a park or recreational area.
The Prescription for Nature initiative was spearheaded by the Healthy Lifestyles Workgroup, which falls under the St. Clair County Community Services Coordinating Body. The workgroup is chaired by Dr. Sushma Reddy, an endocrinologist who has been practicing in the community for more than 20 years. She often deals with obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, so she has a passion for keeping kids healthy to prevent those diseases, and more, and the health issues associated with them.
The group put together a combination brochure/Rx sheet that includes a list of local parks and beaches, walk and bike trails, and elementary school playgrounds. Most importantly, it has a space for the “Rx Prescription for Nature.”
“The idea is that the patients, when they walk into their doctor’s office for their routine physical, will get a prescription for nature from their doctor that says go play at a certain park or spend 30 minutes a day playing outside,” says Reddy. “So, we’re hoping that by this being an actual prescription, it will motivate children to get outside and play.”
Reddy says that when you connect children with nature and give them time to play, you can decrease obesity and other medical issues and help kids with Attention Deficit Disorder. Reddy is particularly tuned in to the impact this program could have on preventing diabetes.
“For me, personally, there is a big improvement in the health of the patient if they’re not a diabetic,” says Reddy. “By living healthy, they feel better, they have more energy, they’re not tardy to work, they’re not stressed.”
The Prescription for Nature project in St. Clair County is based on a national program through the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Children and Nature Initiative, which strives to reduce childhood obesity and diabetes and reconnect children with nature. According to Reddy, the program is starting in St. Clair County as a pilot in two pediatrician offices, but will filter out from there to all of the pediatricians in the county.
The Healthy Lifestyles Workgroup is certainly on the right track. Childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years, has impacted 17 percent or 12.5 million U.S. children, contributing to a host of related health issues: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social-psychological struggles like stress, stigmatization, depression or low self-esteem.
Over the past few decades other childhood disorders have been on the rise too. These include Type 2 diabetes, asthma, vitamin D deficiency, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These patterns should sound an alarm. If we keep shifting more and more toward a sedentary lifestyle, children's health may continue to decline. Part of reversing that trajectory will be getting kids outdoors involved in more unstructured play with less time spent indoors with computers and video games.
The Prescription for Nature project will encourage St. Clair County parents, caregivers and children to consider the health benefits of turning off the television and getting outside to play. Hoorah!
The Healthy Lifestyles Workgroup’s mission is to create a culture where St. Clair County residents are empowered by community resources that facilitate healthy lifestyles. The group provides support for all parts of the community to understand and act upon advancements and developments that may affect health and wellness through prevention. Mode Shift staff will be writing more about this group and other St. Clair activities that promote physical activity and community connections in the months ahead.
Got kids of your own or some to borrow for an afternoon? Head out to a nearby nature center or greenway and let them run amuck.